Prickle, itch and allergies are some of the reasons given by consumers for avoiding purchasing wool garments. Now new technology has been developed to objectively measure the comfort and handle of next-to-skin wool products, thereby restoring retailer and consumer trust. Charlotte Rogers finds out more.

Skin health is a key priority for the global wool industry. According to an Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) consumer survey, 4 in 10 consumers globally nominate 'prickle and itch' as a major reason for avoiding wool purchases, whilst 1 in 10 claim they are allergic to wool.

There is a necessity to get a grip on next-to-skin comfort. Accurate, objective measurements of the comfort and handle of lightweight wool garments would reassure brands that the garment was fit for purpose and enhance consumer trust in wool. These objective measurements are also expected to help retailers manage consistency across seasons, reducing the complexity of the buying process.

Developed by the Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC), the Wool ComfortMeter and Wool HandleMeter quality assurance tools are designed to accurately predict the comfort levels of wool products. Once commer­cialised, expectations are this ‘breakthrough’ technology will become essential for the marketing of wool, especially for infantwear and dermatology applications.Wool ComfortMeterThe Wool ComfortMeter produces a quantifiable measure of levels of next-to-skin comfort.

“I think that, with time and sensible commercialisation, the Wool ComfortMeter device will come to be seen as one of the most important fabric quality assurance testing developments of the last 40 years – and it will facilitate the development of the medical and babywear product markets for wool,” says Dr Paul Swan, AWI general manager of research.

“I expect that the Wool ComfortMeter will become a 'must-have' quality assurance test for those seeking to supply wool products. I think it will become something critical to have to assure dermatologists that the wool product will help their patients.”

The Wool ComfortMeter works by counting the number of fibres protruding from a fabric, which have the potential to cause discomfort. As the number of fibres increases, so does the level of discomfort.

Experts at the WA Department of Agriculture and Food carried out wearer trials over four years in its ‘Garment Laboratory,’ to determine how to relate the Wool ComfortMeter values to the human sensation of comfort. Sheep CRC reports a ‘very good predictive relationship’ between the Wool ComfortMeter values and consumer responses from large scale wearer trials.

Sheep CRC reports a “very good predictive relationship” between the Wool ComfortMeter values and consumer responses

The non-destructive Wool ComfortMeter test can be performed on fabric or garments. It is recommended that five fabric samples (each approximately 30cm x 30cm) are used for the test. Once placed on the testing bed, the measuring head passes over the sample four times. The average of the five sample results provides a single value for the fabric.

The lower the value, the better the garment is for next-to-skin applications. Values below 400 are associated with no perceived discomfort to the average wearer. Values above 400 are associated with greater levels of perceived discomfort.

Handle preference is subjective and can be affected by fibre diameter, yarn twist, knit structure and finishing processes. This means problems can occur in communi­cating buyer hand feel preferences across a global supply chain, especially in different languages. Retailers also run the risk that hand feel could vary across batches due to a lack of objective measurement.

Sheep CRC spent four years defining and calibrating handle measurements with expert assessors and consumers. This new technology objectively measures the handle attributes of next-to-skin wool knitwear, helping buyers generate specifications for wool types.

The Wool HandleMeter assesses the seven core attributes of handle: smoothness, softness, warm feel, dry feel, hairiness, tightness and perceived weight, as well as an overall luxury handle index.

The aim is to offer product transparency, ensuring buyers know what they are getting and that manufacturers understand what their customers want. The instrument generates an objective, repeatable value which encapsulates fabric handle. Retailers can use these measurements to ensure the hand feel of their next-to-skin wool products is consistent. Designers can also manipulate the measurable numeric values to create products that respond to their specific customers’ needs.

“The objective data provided by the technology fills a gap in retailers’ ability to specify to their suppliers the comfort and handle levels they require for their garments,” says Sheep CRC industry engagement coordinator, Les Targ.

“As a result manufacturers and retailers can now produce and market elite quality next-to-skin Merino wool garments that consistently meet consumer expectations, whilst reducing the risk of product returns and consumer dissatisfaction.”

Sheep CRC and the Australian Wool Testing Authority (AWTA) reported overwhelmingly positive feedback from wool processors, spinners and retailers taking part in the pilot project. Each company involved received comprehensive comfort and handle information on up to ten of their products, together with a detailed data analysis.

The Wool ComfortMeter and HandleMeter technology has already been embraced by knitwear manufacturers and brands including Australian fashion retailer Country Road and Chinese knitwear company Mengdi. The technology has been showcased to Nike, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Brooks Brothers, Jaeger, Next, Arcadia and Boden.

“The retailers we met with in the UK account for around 40% of retail outlets in the UK market. This highlights the immense potential for the Wool ComfortMeter and HandleMeter to generate new demand for next-to-skin wool garments,” says Targ.

Former US National Retail Federation executive, Erik Autor, has been working with Sheep CRC to engage major US brands including LL Bean and VF Corporation, with positive results.

Sheep CRC believes this new technology makes a real case for price premiums for superfine and ultrafine wool producers. The Wool ComfortMeter quantifies how comfort levels improve for finer micron wools down to 13.5 microns. Testing is expected to establish a clear differentiation between superfine and ultrafine wools for next-to-skin wear.

Discussions are now underway with testing houses in the UK and US to extend the level of retailer engagement and gather further market feedback ahead of the commerciali­sation of the technology.

Sheep CRC chief executive, James Rowe, sees the real benefits for the global wool industry of the widespread use of the Wool ComfortMeter and HandleMeter technology. “The benefit for the wool industry is that these instruments also demonstrate to retailers, brands and manufacturers that if you wish to produce and market a superior next-to-skin product you must invest in a supply chain that utilises superfine and ultrafine Merino wool.”

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This article by Charlotte Rogers was originally published in the May 2014 edition of Twist magazine, Twist is read across the textile supply chain from early stage processors to retailers and is published by World Textile Information Network (WTIN)